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Monday, August 8, 2022

Cookbook Showdown: Chai | Book Riot

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From curing a common cold to finalizing matrimony, chai (the Hindi word for ‘tea’) carries on its shoulders a history that is over 5,000 years old. While split into multiple types ranging from Darjeeling to Ceylon to Earl Grey, it has its origin in South Asia, in the Assam region of India. It has a history of being used in Ayurveda medicine initially, but the evolution of chai and how it has come to be used today in households and shops, also tells the story of a drink that has seen an entire region subject to colonization and partition.

While initially part of South Asia, by the 1700s, as the British penetrated the various regions of Asia, tea culture began spreading from East Asia to western Europe. In the 1830s, the British, fearing monopolization of the tea industry by the Chinese, began their own crop cultivation for tea in India, which is how it made its way to the west.

Traditional chai as we have come to know it today is usually a blend of spices ranging from cinnamon, star anise, cardamom, cloves, fennel, ginger, and peppercorn, along with a chosen blend of black tea. The varying strength of the tea usually has to do with the degree of oxidization the leaves have been put through. Oxidation, as the name might suggest, is the process through which tea leaves interact with oxygen. The process of oxidation in tea leaves begins when tea leaves are harvested and is then continued when tea leaves are either broken or damaged in some way, allowing for more oxygen to enter the leaves. The more the tea is oxidized, the darker it is in color, and the stronger it is. Once the varying degree of oxidation is achieved, tea leaves are then exposed to high heat, stopping the oxidation process, and preventing the tea from darkening any further. For the recipes below, loose tea is preferred for all the recipes as opposed to tea bags, as loose tea is often oxidized for longer.

I drink my tea with a smaller number of spices than the traditional chai because I drink tons of it, and too many spices tend to give me raging heartburn. My daily tea of choice — three times a day — is a spoonful of loose black tea, cooked in a saucepan for a minute, then simmered for two minutes. Then I put it on a flame again and add a dash of milk, only a dash. When I feel fancy, I add cardamom and fennel seeds and play with the flavors by adding a dash of sugar and salt to elevate the flavors, but this is occasional when there is more time.

What makes it a great contender for a cookbook showdown when it is easy enough to buy at any coffee shop? Well, learning how to make chai on your own allows you to control the intensity of flavor according to your preference and how sweet you prefer it. Coffee shop-made chai lattes usually come with pre-made mixes with a predetermined level of sweetness (usually very) to overcome the bitterness of the spices. The bitterness is the essence of the chai, though. It is meant to complement both the sweet and sour moments of your life, by utter contrast or perfect cohesion.

The three recipes I chose below are based on two things; the time it takes to make them and the varying intensity of the flavor. Each of these is fit for any beginner to expert and is best enjoyed with a Chocolate Digestive, a chocolate chip cookie, or any dessert of choice. Let the games begin.

Some Notes on Ingredients and Timing

  • Chai, like any other drink, is a blend of flavors. Ingredients like cardamom, peppercorn, cloves, and cinnamon make the chai bitter, so offsetting the bitterness with sugar, full fat milk, and even a bit of cream is ideal.
  • The duration of your cooking will alter the flavors. Cardamom takes time to leave flavor, while cinnamon dispels flavor immediately. So time your ingredients accordingly. Add cardamom first, followed by cinnamon later, etc.
  • Fresh ginger is the only way to go for this recipe, or skip altogether. Ginger paste has additional preservatives which will wreck the flavor.
  • The intensity of the cooking temperature will also impact the final flavor. High heat for a short time will make for a bitter end result, while medium heat and medium time will make for a more balanced taste.
  • Cardamom is a relatively expensive ingredient, make sure to price compare before committing. Your best bet is the South East Asian grocery.
  • Milk and sugar are adjustable, so start small always.

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